SAN ANTONIO — Jackson Arnold’s first career start was never going to be perfect. Starting debuts at his position, particularly in bowl season, seldom ever are.
But across the three and a half hours of Oklahoma’s 38-24 loss to Arizona Thursday night, Arnold had a message a team chaplain shared earlier in the day bouncing around his head.
“The main focus was battling through adversity because it’s going to strike at some point,” the freshman quarterback explained. “And it did tonight.”
Arnold battled plenty inside the Alamodome.
He stood tall in the pocket and took all the hits. He ran the football 11 times and threw more passes than any Sooners quarterback this fall. His 361 passing yards and two touchdowns came on 26-of-45 passing, and Arnold balanced it with the four turnovers that factor heavily in OU’s third loss of the season.
It was a night that tested the young passer’s mental steel as much as his ability. As they walked off the field, junior linebacker Danny Stutsman threw his arm around Arnold and assured him of his place as the Sooners’ quarterback of the future.
“He needs to hang his head up higher than ever because Oklahoma has his back — that entire locker room with Jackson,” Stutsman said minutes later. “And this changes nothing.”
There were flashes of the promising five-star quarterback fans have clamored over since Arnold arrived on campus. There were other moments in which he very much looked the part of a freshman passer, too.
“Jackson had many things tonight that were just fantastic,” Brent Venables said. “He’s going to have an amazing future. We’ve got to be a little better around him to help him.”
Since the start of the 2022 bowl season, quarterbacks making their first starts in a bowl game are 5-6. Arnold is one of four to throw multiple interceptions in his debut. Like most of his contemporaries, Arnold didn’t complete more than 60% of his passes.
Yet Arnold’s 361 passing yards were more than any first-time bowl starter over the last two seasons and he held up better than the rest.
Venables followed OU players and members of his own staff in gushing over Arnold’s bowl season progression in the lead up to the season finale this week. In particular, the Sooners’ coach noted the short memory Arnold had seemed to develop over the last month, consistently able to move on from a bad throw or a bad series.
That resolve was tested immediately on Thursday.
After back-to-back incompletions in the direction of Drake Stoops on the Sooners’ opening possession, Arnold targeted Stoops a third time and was intercepted by Arizona’s Genesis Smith.
The next series delivered a three-and-out, and when Arnold was picked off a second time on the ensuing possession, he returned to the sideline with three completions for 30 yards with two interceptions on eight passing attempts.
It was at that moment that one could at least wonder if the stage was too big for the Sooners’ new QB1. It didn’t take long for Arnold to dispel any such notions.
“First career start, he played his heart out,” Stutsman said.
Arnold fired a pair of quick completions to Nic Anderson. He’d go on to complete five of his six passes for 50 yards on that series, setting up Gavin Sawchuk’s 20-yard touchdown run.
Minutes later, Arnold threw against his body on the run and found Anderson for a diving, 10-yard touchdown grab. Altogether, Arnold followed his shaky start by completing nine of his next 11 passes for 100 yards, then opened the second half with a soaring, 63-yard touchdown throw — Arnold’s best of the evening — to Brenen Thompson.
That throw represented the Sooners’ longest passing connection in a bowl game since the 1985 Orange Bowl. And suddenly, Arnold appeared perfectly settled in.
“Obviously there’s things that went bad tonight, but just learn(ing) to keep my head up and keep playing through it no matter what is something I’ll take away from the night,” Arnold said.
Arnold’s performance came with other growing pains.
The pass Arizona’s Martell Irby intercepted on the opening play of the fourth quarter — Arnold’s third pick — kicked off a disastrous final period for OU. Arnold’s fumble with 3:43 remaining removed any remaining hope of an 11th win in 2023.
“Those mistakes were on me,” he said. “I’m going to take the full blame for that. I’ve just got to be better.”
Arnold wasn’t perfect. Neither were the Sooners around him.
For a second straight year, OU struggled to protect its passer behind a reshaped, bowl-season offensive line.
Each of Jalil Farooq’s fumbles came on the end of accurate passes from Arnold that had the Sooners driving deep in Arizona territory.
Venables referenced multiple occasions, including a long conversion on the Wildcats’ go-ahead scoring drive, in which he felt the defense failed to get off the field.
“Everybody around him has got to be better to help him be successful,” Venables said. “But I think it shows you, you don’t have to play perfect. As a matter of fact, you can play far from perfect and still have a chance to beat a top-15 team. At the same time, the game will punish you for turning the ball over.”
Giveaways cost OU in the Alamodome and Arnold was culpable. Yet the Alamo Bowl finale was always about so much more for the Sooners than an outcome against Arizona or a final win in 2023.
This was a test of OU’s new quarterback. Clear as the program turns the page toward 2024 and a new era in the SEC is that the Sooners have a quarterback they believe in.
“Every time he takes that field I have so much confidence in that offense and everything that they do,” Stutsman said. “I love him to death.”